Bill would create Campus Free Speech Act

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BLOOMINGTON — Legislation co-sponsored by state Rep. Dan Brady would create a Campus Free Speech Act requiring public colleges and universities in Illinois to adopt policies on free expression to protect the free speech rights of invited speakers.

The measure, House Bill 2939, was introduced last month by state Rep. Peter Breen, R-Lombard, and is based on — but not identical to — a model bill developed by a conservative research organization, the Goldwater Institute. About a half dozen other states are considering similar bills.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday before the House Higher Education Committee.

Brady, a Bloomington Republican, said he became chief co-sponsor because he agrees with the intent of “protecting our free speech and ability to express that message.”

“I think for all of our universities to be responsible for having on their books a protocol and policy for freedom of speech is a good thing,” Brady said.

The model legislation was developed in the wake of several incidents on campuses across the country in which protesters disrupted talks by controversial speakers or invitations to such speakers were withdrawn. 

The legislation also was inspired by situations in which colleges limited the ability of students to protest or distribute literature.

One such incident occurred in 2015 at the College of DuPage, where students handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution were confronted by a security officer because they had not obtained a permit from officials.

Breen said, “This is something that continues to come up nationally and within my own district,” which includes the College of DuPage.

Although Breen based his initial bill on the Goldwater Institute’s model, he is filing an amendment to revise parts of it after consulting with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Among other things, the changes would remove references to sanctions for infringing on the rights of others to listen or engage in free expression. The original bill stated that a student infringing on such rights would be suspended for a minimum of one year for a second offense and included financial damages of at least $1,000.

Illinois State University spokesman Eric Jome said ISU has policies and practices that cover most of what’s in the bill.

Although Schroeder Plaza on the north side of the quad tends to be the site of many demonstrations because of its openness and visible location, ISU doesn’t have specific “speech zones,” said Jome.

The student conduct code states that “students are free to assemble and to express their free speech in a peaceful and orderly manner” but that disrupting or obstructing activities or inciting others to do so is a violation of the code.

Jome noted that ISU President Larry Dietz has talked about being “respectful of other people’s opinion and people’s right to express themselves.”

But Jonathan Butcher, education director of the Goldwater Institute, said that hasn’t been the case everywhere.

Butcher, who helped develop the model legislation, said there have been a number of incidents where protesters have “tried to silence others. This is the crux of it.”

He cited a case earlier this month at Middlebury College in Vermont where chanting demonstrators prevented a controversial speaker from delivering a talk.

“You can yell when it’s your turn,” Butcher said, but civil society depends on the ability of people to express themselves.

Butcher said the Goldwater Institute is a Phoenix-based research institution, founded in 1988, that works to protect individual liberties and constitutional rights. Butcher categorized it as “conservative.”

Butcher said universities should be places where you “can have debate about uncomfortable things” and it is wrong “when you forcibly stop someone else from speaking.”

He said, “We need to educate students on what it means to protect the First Amendment.”

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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March 25, 2017 at 02:02AM

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Bill would create Campus Free Speech Act

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